Virginia voters probably won’t get a chance to take the now-defunct gay marriage ban out of the state’s Constitution after a GOP-led House of Delegates panel voted Tuesday to block an effort to give the state a do-over with marriage equality now widely accepted by the public.
An early-morning subcommittee hearing on the issue grew tense after a representative from the socially conservative Family Foundation suggested enshrining a fundamental right to marry in the Virginia Constitution could open the door to legally sanctioned polygamy, inter-family marriage and child marriage.
After Republicans sided with the opponents and voted 6-4 to block the proposal, Del. Mark Sickles, D-Fairfax, a sponsor of the marriage-equality measure and one of the first openly gay men to serve in the General Assembly, confronted the Family Foundation’s Josh Hetzler at the back of a Capitol committee room.
“You guys are so far from Christian,” Sickles said. “How about you try a little love in your life.”
Unless House Republicans reverse course and support the same proposal coming over from the Senate, the amendment’s defeat likely marks the end of a multi-year effort to reaffirm LGBTQ equality in Virginia. The push began in early 2021 as Democrats used their majority power in the General Assembly to give the amendment initial passage. Though some Republicans support the measure, the GOP winning back a House majority last fall cast doubt over whether it would pass a second time and make it onto Virginians’ midterm ballots later this year.
As Sickles fumed, Hetzler and other conservatives in the room insisted things might’ve gone differently had Democrats offered up a “clean” repeal bill that didn’t seek to replace the ban with affirmative language declaring marriage “one of the vital personal rights essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness.”
In an interview, Del. Chris Head, R-Botetourt, the chairman of the House Privileges and Elections subcommittee that blocked the proposal, said he “absolutely” shared concerns about the potential unintended consequences of declaring marriage a right.
“A fundamental right implies that you can exercise that right any time you want to,” Head said. “There are people that may want to marry that don’t have a relationship. What do we do about that?”
“When you’re on the wrong side of public opinion you can really make up some stories,” Sickles said. “That is incredible.”
Del. Dawn Adams, D-Richmond, the first openly gay woman to serve in the state legislature, also strongly objected to Hetzler’s remarks. After growing up in a deeply religious household, Adams said, she and her longtime partner resisted getting married out of respect for their parents’ faith. But after marriage became legal in Virginia, Adams said in an emotional speech, “my parents and her parents finally said, ‘What the heck, why aren’t you married?'”
“This matters to people,” she said. “And it’s not hurting anybody. It’s not hurting God. And it’s offensive to be lumped into polygamy and all kinds of other crazy stuff.”
As he presented the proposal, Sickles said opponents may be clinging to the 2006 ban, which legal challenges had already rendered moot by the time the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage nationwide in 2015, because they hope “maybe inequality will make a comeback.”
In testimony before the subcommittee, Jeff Caruso, executive director of the Virginia Catholic Conference, suggested the ban could be reactivated in the future.
“A state law that is dormant now would become effective again if the federal law changes, but only if the state law remains on the books,” Caruso said. “The decision before you today, therefore, is significant and should be based on what you believe is the right policy.”
Despite Tuesday’s vote to uphold the 16-year-old ban, gay marriage will remain legal in Virginia.
In a campaign-trail interview with the Associated Press last year, Gov. Glenn Youngkin said he does not support gay marriage but sees it as “legally acceptable.”
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